Six Fabian Lectures on Redistribution of Income
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Six Fabian Lectures on Redistribution of Income

Dedicated to Louis Crompton

Introduction

[That Bernard Shaw, on the outbreak of what would become known as World War I, retreated in early September 1914 to the Hydro Hotel in Torquay to write his controversial anti-militarist tract Common Sense about the War is well known. What seems to have escaped the notice of commentators on Shaw is that Common Sense was, in fact, only one of two great tasks he had set for himself in Torquay; the other, which had been planned from much earlier in the year, was to prepare for the Fabian Society a series of lectures “On Redistribution of Income” to be delivered at the Kingsway Hall, London, over a period of six weeks at the end of 1914, on “Wednesdays, 28th October, 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th November, and 2nd December, 1914, at 8:30 p.m.”1

Thus, when Common Sense was published to some uproar in the press on 14 November, Shaw was right in the middle of this well-publicized and highly successful—both financially and in terms of publicity—Fabian Society series of public lectures.

Shaw gave hundreds, if not thousands of such lectures in his lifetime, and this series on redistribution of income may well form the apex of his platform career. Retrospectively, its importance has been obscured by the impact on Shaw and the Fabians, as well as on everyone else, of the Great War and what followed in its wake. They may, however, provide the key to this most misunderstood period in his oeuvre, the most difficult to judge since he appeared to be shooting without any fixed purpose off in [End Page 10] all directions, producing a huge variety of short and long plays, substantial prefaces on such diverse major social issues as medicine, divorce laws, and education, as well as letters to the editor on a vast array of topics, not to mention tracts against stage censorship, while coordinating that campaign. In other lectures of the period, he turned more to those religious implications raised by his three great plays of the beginning of the century, Man and Superman (1901–3), John Bull’s Other Island (1904), and Major Barbara (1905), which, in fact, underpinned the core notion of human equality that provided the foundations for this lecture series.2

In Major Barbara, Shaw foregrounded for the first time what he saw as the greatest social and political, and above all human, problem: poverty, especially the poverty characteristic—even today—of slums in the great industrial conurbations. For whatever reason, as a middle-class child in the middle of the nineteenth century he had become acutely aware of the atrocious poverty in the tenements of Dublin, which seems to have left him with a burning desire to work politically to bring about a world where such poverty could not exist: it motivated his lifelong efforts as a Fabian Socialist.

At the same time as Major Barbara had its opening run at the Court Theatre toward the end of 1905, Shaw’s Fabian colleague Beatrice Webb was appointed to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Poor Law. In 1909, the Commission issued not one, but two reports: a Majority Report and what has since become familiarly known as Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report, jointly written with Sidney Webb, and generally recognized, including by Sir William Beveridge—author of the 1942 Beveridge Report—as the first blueprint in Britain for what is called the welfare state.3

The Minority Report proved a great success when published independently by the Fabian society in two large volumes. In June 1909, Shaw wrote to Webb, who, following her Report, was setting up a public Campaign for the Prevention of Destitution independent of the Fabian Society to agitate for implementation of its proposals. He explained that among other obstacles her campaign would be accused and dismissed, like every other progressive campaign, of being out-and-out socialism. Determined to deflect such accusations, Shaw proposed to agitate for a much more radical, if practicable (as opposed to Utopian) end goal for socialism that he had begun to think through, to wit, that...